The Canberra Raiders no longer stand at the precipice of disaster. With their 26-24 loss to the North Queensland Cowboys they have now fully engulfed themselves in calamity. There is a way back from here, but it feels very far away right now.
This was meant to be the point the season turned around. Sticky had pulled out all the big guns. Sacking established stars, warning others. Shuffling players around and bringing up red-hot inform players into the 17. He’d even called out the pride of the team, demanding that they make the efforts to make it happen. He essentially red-lined the engine, and all he got was a brief roar before sputtering into silence.
For a brief moment it seemed like he pulled all the right strings. But then we’ve seen it before. In each game of this horror run the Raiders have actually started well. They could have led the unbeatable Panthers by two tries. Against the Eels they were basically square at half time. In this match they led 24-6 and things felt good. They got in front because for the first time in a few weeks the Raiders were dominating the middle. They outgained the Cows by close to 400 metres in the first half, clocking just under 1000 metres for the half. They were doing it on both sides. After weeks of lifeless defence in the middle, Canberra were back to their early season form, brutalising their opposition and making them kick from their own half. It seemed every second set ended with the Cowboys taking less than 35 metres and putting in a kick under pressure.
The middles won with powerful runs and offloads. Early in the game the Canberra forwards were physically dominant, so when they got into a tackle they were still in an advantageous enough position to find a free arm. Josh Papalii set up Emre Guler’s try with exactly this. He was so powerful in a run close to the line, that four defenders came in to bring him down. When he popped a pass to Tom Starling, Emre Guler ran into a hole so big Dale Kerrigan would have told his dad about it. Later in the half Starling and Williams combined off the back of a Corey Horsburgh offload in almost the exact same manner as Hodgson and Williams had done a week earlier. The pathway Starling took required more dexterity than his English overstudy a week earlier, but the result was the same. A third try started with a Sutton offload.
Winning the middle with defence as well as offence meant that Canberra got to play a lot from an advantageous field position. They brought a similar game plan to that which worked early against the Eels and Panthers – punching in around the ruck and on the right, and allowing the left side to be where they build their structured attack. Against the Eels they’d flopped where they could have fascinated, but for a period here they didn’t disappoint.
The Raiders had made a structural change to support this. Jack Wighton and George Williams were back playing split sides. It was a smart decision, because it meant Jack got more ball with a bit of space before the line, and plenty of room and runners outside him to make decisions. He looked dangerous for the first time all season. The Raiders scored twice going left – Jack took an offload from Sutton, jumped outside his defender, creating an overlap that Elliott Whithead took perfect advantage of when he sent a gorgeous spiral out to an unmarked Rapana to score. Later he took the ball at first receiver on the blind, hit Rapana with a cut-out ball for his second. It was a different balance to Canberra’s attack. Williams had a few less possessions than normal on the right, and Jack flourished. For a period.
In the lead up to halftime, and then after it, Canberra suddenly weren’t able to offer the defensive effort required to control the Cowboys. They missed 22 second-half tackles (29 in total for the game), and the first contact on tackles slipped and slipped. The Cows gained near 1000 metres in return in the second half. Canberra were back playing between their goal line and halfway. It was a familiar feeling. The intensity, physicality and robustness goal line defence of the last two seasons has departed, replaced with an exhausted group unable to match. When Reece Robson went over from dummy-half, Tom Starling and Ryan Sutton were in a position to stop him, they just didn’t. Scott Drinkwater and Valentine Holmes made several breaks running through and around tired middle defenders. The line speed, the physicality, the cohesion: they all became rarer the longer the game went. The comfortable feeling that the defence would find a way, so carefully constructed over two years was non-existent. Everything felt difficult.
This wasn’t helped by a frustrating error rate. They had 12 for the game, and some were very costly. Seb Kris dropped a kick that would moments later become a Cowboy try (my dude is a gun centre, but wing is not his spot). George Williams dropped a kick off after his own try, and the Cows scored moments later. Curtis Scott dropped a ball coming out of trouble and yep, you guessed it, North Queensland scored next set. These weren’t the only errors. Tom Starling twice threw passes to over-running forwards when the Raiders were on the attack. Guler dropped the ball twice early in the game. Corey Harawira-Naera celebrated his return to first grade by dropping the ball on his first run. There’s more, but it’s just making me sad to list them.
The pressure was compounded by what seems like an odd set of bench rotations. Hudson Young, an eighty minute player, didn’t get a run until the second half and then only for 20 minutes, Josh Papalii, only managed 42 and was off the field for too much of the second half. Corey Horsburgh played just 32. Siliva Havili played just eight minutes. What’s the point of carrying a utility if you don’t use him like one? The Canberra bench felt better balanced in it’s membership before this game, but they need to use more rotations through the middle, rather than keep a hooker in tow, if only to allow greater expenditure of defensive effort.
This game lent credence to the argument that the injury to Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is having a bigger impact on the Raiders defence than most recognise. Fullbacks play an important role moving defenders around and balancing the defensive line. Canberra were unbalanced on the first try; simply outnumbered on one side from the play-the-ball. Croker and Rapana tore in to try and shut the effort down, couldn’t, and the cover defence from Wighton and Aekins was ineffective. Fullbacks also have a more obvious defensive role, and Aekins also got caught on two separate grubbers. Both were very good kicks, but smarter people than me will wonder how essentially the same kick caught him out twice.
After their initial success, the Canberra attack continued to cycle their sets, searching for a moment or a run that could spark something, but exhaustion hit here too, and the movements became more insipid, and unable to meaningfully challenge the opposition. It was so familiar in recent weeks. As mortality reared its ugly head and they fell behind, the Milk began to shift and shift but it meant nothing because they couldn’t penetrate, or even bend the line at any point of the park, especially the middle. The game slipped away, and no one in the spine had the headiness to recognise the fact. Suddenly it didn’t matter how your halves were structured, or which hooker was passing to whom, the light was again shone on the exhausted and outmanoeuvred Canberra unable to wrestle back control.
And this is the problem. Canberra is losing the battle in the old way. What was meant to be a strength – it’s middle, and its ability to dominate the ruck – has become a weakness. The Panthers shifted the point of attack so rapidly the defence struggled to keep up. Against the Eels Canberra tried to do the same, only to discover they didn’t have the execution or cohesion to turn that tap on suddenly. When they didn’t win the battle at the point of attack it ceased to matter. They were cleaner this week for a period, because the Cowboys are not the Panthers or the Eels, and they won that point of contact initially. But that battle evaded them as the game got longer. Fitness, rotations, and self-inflicted errors are all part of the problem, but there’s something else there. Given the talent, and the spurts of dominance we’ve seen this year, it’s hard to identify what that is without saying something glib and nebulous like ‘attitude’ or ‘consistency’.
I honestly don’t know how you fix that quickly. Better use of rotations will help maintain defensive effort and physicality. The maintenance of the split halves suits Jack Wighton more. There’s some personnel changes that would too. Hudson Young should start again on the edge. Josh Hodgson will return and at the very least Sticky will happily use him to give other middles a rest when he and Starling share the field. Joe Tapine will return and give some needed spark to the middle runs. Bailey Simonsson’s potential return on the wing will not only put a specialist at a position that requires it, but also allow Kris to be used more effectively, either off the bench or in the starting line up.
I still see a team that can be a contender but no matter how you dice it, right now this side is not that. I wrote earlier in the week that the next ten days were critical to righting the ship – that feels optimistic now. This isn’t a mere adjustment needed. Tinkering isn’t the solution. Something more fundamental than just putting people in different spots is required. Normally this would be the point the coach would go the rev up, but Sticky already used that card last week and look where that got us. The frustrating knowledge that there’s better hiding somewhere, unable to come forth is all so pre-2019.
All hope is not lost, and while an easier path forward is to win next Thursday, more than that Canberra just need to find a way to remain effective as the game wears on. The season is so long, the top 8 so close, and the potential of this side so great. Even if they don’t win next week, it’s a critical point to prove they can compete for a full game, and build from there. There’s a good footy team in there somewhere. I just hope it can find its way out. There’s still time.